CalTrout’s Legal Strategy Affirms Commitment to Potter Valley Project Solution





By Redgie Collins, Legal & Policy Director


CalTrout prides itself in working jointly with stakeholders of all types- landowners, water users, utility agencies, etc.- to find collaborative solutions to complicated natural resource issues. This cooperative approach has served as the hallmark for CalTrout’s strategy thus far in handling the Potter Valley Project (PVP). Owned by PG&E, PVP is a century old hydropower and water diversion project on California’s Eel River, consisting of Scott and Cape Horn dams that have caused severe degradation to the watershed. CalTrout and others recognized a unique opportunity to steer the future of the Eel River back toward robust fisheries and a healthy watershed with the removal of both Eel River dams. To do this, we focused our efforts on building trust, forming strong partnerships, and working proactively with PG&E. 

However, due to major obstacles and lack of forward progress, we turned to an alternative strategy in CalTrout’s toolbox.  

CalTrout recently joined a legal claim challenging PG&E’s operation of PVP. To some people, this may seem at odds with its earlier strategy striving for collaboration. Yet we maintain that while collaboration is crucial- trying to solely stay and work within certain boundaries may not lead to the best outcomes. Cue an aggressive, but targeted legal approach as the necessary next step. In this case of CalTrout’s pending Endangered Species "take" claim aimed at the PVP operations, we believe that by holding PG&E accountable for killing endangered fish and blocking critical migratory fish passage is essential to build on the momentum generated thus far for the removal of the Eel River Dams. 


Cover Photo: Kyle Schwartz



Early Efforts 

In 2016, CalTrout joined Congressman Huffman’s Ad-Hoc committee with a focus on opening migratory fish passage above Scott Dam. Darren Mierau, CalTrout’s North Coast Region Director, led this effort through his technical and ecological expertise and partnering with Emily Cooper of Humboldt State to produce a study of the upper habitat. Emily's research paper resulted in a peer-reviewed and NMFS-supported publication that revealed over 288 linear river miles of habitat exists above the Eel River dams.   


Background Photo: Kyle Schwartz


Given CalTrout's experience, leadership, and trust among both the NGO and water user community, we then forged the Two Basin Partnership as an outgrowth of the ad-hoc committee. The strong partnership joined together five key stakeholder groups: California Trout, Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT), Sonoma Water Agency (Sonoma Water), Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Committee (MCIWPC), and Humboldt County. The Partners spent the next two years raising over $4 million to fund studies of the watershed and what dam removal could look like. This collaboration and the resulting studies led the Partners towards a future project description that would meet the needs of water users in the Eel and Russian River basins. 

This project description, filed by the Partners in 2021, included the removal of Scott Dam and the “modification of Cape Horn Dam.” Our feasibility study, once again funded by the Two-Basin Solution Partners, presented three alternatives that all included continued water diversion to the Russian River from the Eel River. CalTrout supports all three of these alternatives.  

The studies also gave the Two-Basin Solution Partners a blueprint for the future for the Potter Valley Project, revealing just how fundamentally disruptive current project operations are for the Eel River.  Additional studies revealed another glaring truth: Cape Horn Dam and the fish ladder do not work as intended, and instead are a barrier to migration and end up killing salmon and steelhead. A March 16th letter by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) outlined their concerns with PVP's operations and stated that the project no longer meets federal environmental standards.  

Ultimately, the Two-Basin Solution Partnership could not convince PG&E to financially support our application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (aka: FERC, the federal agency responsible for hydropower projects) even though it would save the company and its rate payers money. We offered PG&E a good deal on short-term funding for our potential project type, but PG&E was unwilling to negotiate. The largest obstacle to a cooperative solution for the Potter Valley project has been PG&E’s unwillingness to operate proactively. Documents from PG&E show that the Potter Valley Project loses $7-10 million a year, it cannot support the full capacity of power production, and it lies on seismically unstable geology. Despite this, and a diverse group of Two-Basin Solution Partners pledging millions in funding, PG&E remained obstinate. 

Potter Valley Project Kyle Schwartz Current image embed
Looking down at Scott Dam. Photo: Kyle Schwartz.

In response, CalTrout is suing PG&E to budge the company to take action on their Potter Valley Project which currently kills federally-protected and endangered salmon and steelhead.

CalTrout will continue to meet regularly with Russian River stakeholders and support a continued water diversion, along with the removal of Cape Horn and Scott dams.   

We envision a future for the Eel River with unimpaired access to historical headwaters for salmon, steelhead, and all those that depend on Eel River water. We look forward to continuing our partnership with interested parties, but we will not be deterred in fighting for the recovery of listed salmonids on the Eel River. 

Photo: Michael Wier

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